You CAN Buy Happiness

How to change the world

We live in a consumer culture that tells us that happiness must be bought and consumed constantly.  Of course, the transient form of happiness, or pleasure, that consuming things gives us lasts about as long as it takes to stuff an oreo cookie in your mouth.  And before you know it, you’re not experiencing pleasure any more.  Even worse, you need more pleasure to offset the fact that the oreo cookie you just consumed is making you feel bad physically in your stomach and emotionally because you know it wasn’t healthy.  

Is there a better way to buy happiness?  


Michael Norton from Harvard Business School tells us the secret of how to truly buy happiness, and it goes against everything that modern consumer culture is telling you.

Norton set up a simple experiment: He gave people the same amount of money and told some people to spend it on themselves, while others were told to spend it on someone else.


“The very same purchase, just targeted toward yourself or targeted toward somebody else… People who spent money on other people got happier. People who spent money on themselves, nothing happened. It didn’t make them less happy, it just didn’t do much for them. And the other thing we saw is the amount of money doesn’t matter that much. So people thought that 20 dollars would be way better than five dollars. In fact, it doesn’t matter how much money you spent. What really matters is that you spent it on somebody else rather than on yourself.”

Even more interesting is the fact that this proposition held true for people in an industrialized nation like Canada and in a poor country like Uganda.

You can buy happiness

Spending money on yourself in general does not increase your  overall happiness, whereas spending money on others significantly increases your overall happiness.

“The specific way that you spend on other people isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you spend on other people in order to make yourself happy, which is really quite important. You don’t have to do amazing things with your money to make yourself happy. You can do small, trivial things and yet still get these benefits from doing this.”

What does this mean for practical applications in life, work, and relationships?

Your return on investment for money spent on others is well worth it.  In fact, in teams and in business, you’d be crazy NOT to do it.

You can buy Happiness

“Across all of these different contexts — your personal life, you work life, even silly things like intramural sports – we see spending on other people has a bigger return for you than spending on yourself.”

Giving to others goes against your natural instincts, which is one of the reasons it is so effective at team building and creating bonds between people.  Other people don’t expect you to spend money on them, and they are very pleasantly surprised when you do.  It also sets a precedent for giving that others begin to follow.

One of the core principle in sales is to give value to the customer BEFORE you ask them for anything.  Give them something useful, even if it’s just knowledge, and they will trust you, and possibly even become friends with you, and everyone knows it’s easier to sell to a friend than a stranger.

Now we know that this principle of giving also affects you in a positive way: it makes you HAPPIER!  Happy people are more confident, and arguably will be more successful in general, so giving can be an upward spiral of positive processes.

If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re not spending it right. The implication is not you should buy this product instead of that product and that’s the way to make yourself happier. It’s in fact, that you should stop thinking about which product to buy for yourself and try giving some of it to other people instead.”

You can buy happiness

Hiding behind all of this is the realization that helping yourself is not enough. To truly be happy you must help others, who in turn will be able to help you. This is where lasting happiness comes from.  Happiness comes from connectedness, and living in a more connected world requires all of us to give.

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